If you and seven other Americans with different backgrounds and beliefs were given a weekend to balance the federal budget together, could you do it?
That’s the premise behind “Big Bad Budget,” a film that producer and host Tom Carroll calls a “high-brow reality show.”
Carroll, who owns an Albuquerque, N.M.-based marketing and PR firm, rounded up four local Republicans, three Democrats, and a Democrat-leaning independent. They were given information about the federal budget to digest for a week and then were brought together over two days in June 2013. Their mission was to balance the budget by finding $750 billion in spending cuts and/or tax revenue increases. The negotiations were filmed and then edited down to an hour.
Like other reality shows, there’s some conflict, though there’s no yelling or tearful confessionals. The two tribes – I mean, parties – were separated at times to strategize, and Carroll pulled individuals aside for brief interviews.
The show gave differing viewpoints a chance to be aired. Republican Seth Heath said this about food stamps: “Poverty isn’t supposed to be comfortable. It’s supposed to be painful. Otherwise you have no desire to achieve and to become a successful person.” Wanda Small, a human resources consultant and a Democrat, said most people are trying to succeed. While arguing against cutting unemployment benefits, she said one temporary position she tried to fill paying $10 an hour drew more than 150 applicants. “Nobody wants to be in a situation where they have to get a handout,” she said.
I’ll spoil the ending: They balanced the budget by raising tax revenues by $250 billion and cutting spending by $500 billion, including $200 billion from defense, or about a third of the defense budget. The vote was 7-0, with one abstention. Heath accepted higher taxes along with smaller spending cuts than he preferred. Small agreed to reduce unemployment benefits from 99 weeks to 18 months and to cut Social Security by $75 billion.
It’s hard to miss the point.
“Congress needs to see that it needs to put its own personal interest behind the national interest, and if regular Americans can get together and over a short period of time with the information make the hard decisions, then why can’t Congress?” Carroll told me.
Granted, the comparison with Congress is imperfect. The participants had only one task – make the numbers add up. Members of Congress must balance many competing interests, and not just personal ones. Quickly cutting $200 billion from the defense budget would send shock waves through the economy, for example.
Still, the show demonstrates that, when Americans are given the facts and a reason to work with people with whom they disagree, a consensus can emerge. The first thing that happened was the Democrats proposed cutting $10 billion from the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans, annoyed at government intrusion in general, quickly agreed. Both sides proposed spending cuts and tax increases early in the process because they knew compromise would be required. There was some venting, and then it was just a matter of giving and taking and finding common ground.
“Big Bad Budget” has aired in Albuquerque and is being shopped around public television stations. AETN has recorded the show but hasn’t decided if it will run it. Carroll hopes it will be available on Netflix. It’s available on DVD at www.bigbadbudget.com.
Something like this needs to happen in cities across America and include more than eight Americans. Congress reflects the will of the people, and we the people don’t understand the national debt very well. According to the polls, we don’t want to cut spending or raise taxes. You can’t balance the budget without doing one, the other or both.
On the other hand, the show demonstrates the inadequacy of polling. Questions are usually asked over the phone and in isolation, such as, “Do you favor raising the such-and-such tax?” By itself? Of course not. In this case, Americans made difficult choices because they had an opportunity to make thoughtful decisions in the context of the big picture. They raised taxes, but they cut spending twice as much and balanced the budget.
Failure to compromise meant failure, period. They didn’t want to fail. So even though this wasn’t exactly like Congress, much applies. In Albuquerque and in Washington, people are more likely to succeed when given the right incentives. If it really had to, Congress could balance the budget. As Carroll said, “Right now they’re stuck in their positions, but if you told them that they had to do it or they’d all be thrown out of office, they’d do it in a weekend.”
(Follow Steve Brawner on Twitter @stevebrawner)